Exploring Hikone 彦根
Hikone, the second largest city in Shiga Prefecture, is dominated by the imposing presence of its fine castle, a magnificent structure that, faring somewhat better than a lot of its counterparts, somehow managed to escape the wholesale destruction of castles at the beginning of the Meiji Period.
Although Hikone is justly famous as a castle city, Hikone Castle is by no means the only attraction that the city has to offer.
Since the middle of the seventeenth century, when peaceful times forced armor and weapon makers to turn their skills in another direction, Hikone has been a major center for the production of Buddhist family altars known as butsudan. The street that runs parallel to the Seri River is lined on both sides with shops selling these elaborate structures, and Hikone butsudan are reputed to be the among the best in the country.
Perhaps the most interesting of Hikone’s many temples is Ryotan-ji, popularly known as Niwa-no-Tera, or the garden temple, because of its three beautiful gardens. This month (November), the russets and reds of the maple trees that line the approach should be especially spectacular. Of particular interest are the paintings by Kyoriku Morikawa, a disciple of the famous poet Matsuo Basho, that adorn many of the temple’s sliding wooden doors. Ryotan-ji is about a twenty-minute walk from Hikone Castle. Ryotan-ji is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm, and admission is 300 yen.
Northeast of the castle is the beautiful garden of Genkyu-en. Laid out in 1677 by Ii Nao’oki, the fourth lord of Hikone, the garden features a series of meandering paths that wind their way around a large central pond. Reminiscent of Kanazawa’s famous Kenroku-en, this peaceful garden is more intimate and compact than its illustrious counterpart. Beautiful in any season, Genkyu-en should be particularly spectacular this month, when autumn colors are at their best. Sit in the teahouse overlooking the pond, and enjoy a sweet followed by a bowl of bracingly-bitter green tea. The garden is open from 8:30 am to 5 pm. Tea and a sweet are available for 500 yen.
At the foot of the castle stands the Castle Museum, an accurate reconstruction of the Omote Goten hall, one of the main castle buildings. The extensive collection includes arms and armor, folding screens, tea utensils, traditional musical instruments, and a breathtaking array of Noh masks and costumes, some of which date back to the sixteenth century. The museum also has a magnificent Edo Period (1603-1868) Noh stage, where performances of Noh and Kyogen are periodically given. The museum is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm. Admission is 500 yen.
The highlight of a day in Hikone is a visit to the castle. The wide steps that lead up to it wind eccentrically this way and that, slowing down the progress of the uninvited, and making it difficult to arrive unannounced. The approach is lined with trees, planted to provide sustenance in the forms of both food and medicine in the event of siege. Built by the Ii family in the early seventeenth century, Hikone Castle commands a spectacular view of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake. From the upper reaches, the island of Chikubu-jima, home to Chikubu-jima Hogon-ji, the thirtieth temple on the thirty-three temple pilgrimage of western Japan, is clearly visible, as is the tiny unpopulated island of Take-shima.
The castle interior is a celebration of wood. Walking on wooden boards that millions of feet have rendered wonderfully smooth, one looks up to discover a ceiling of magnificent wooden beams. Cleverly-concealed rectangular and triangular openings, through which arrows and bullets could have been dispatched, are also in evidence. The heady smell of perfectly-seasoned timber which permeates the castle is more in keeping with a rustic retreat than a bastion of defense, and reminds the visitor that this is a castle that was never attacked. The castle is open from 8:30 am to 5 pm. Admission is 500 yen.
Access – Getting to Hikone
Getting there: Hikone is a 48 minute ride from JR Kyoto Station. Trains are frequent, and the trip costs 1,140 yen each way.
Municipal Office, Sightseeing Department: (0749) 22 1411
Traditional Industry Exhibition Hall: (0749) 22 4551
Hikone Community Hall: (0749) 22 3013
Hikone Swimming Center: (0749) 23 4911
Tourist Information Center: (0749) 22 954